Build Intoxicating Businesses

To get the most out of employees, engineer an environment where they can do their life’s work.

“I realised that there are multiple avenues of failure, like financial failure or failure of it just not working. But the failure we were most afraid of was that the company would work, and then ten or twenty years down the road, it would be a company that we would no longer want to be hired by.” - Tobi Lütke

I started learning and writing about Shopify because it seemed a fascinating place to work. Every employee seemed to regard it as the best company they’d ever worked for.

I wanted to translate that into lessons to be used with teams I find myself on. While this essay uses Shopify-related examples throughout, the lessons are intended to be broadly applicable.

The most accurate way to learn about a company and its culture is from the people experiencing it directly. I asked Shopify employees what it was like working for the company. Amongst the praise and positivity were some scathing reviews. 

A few employees messaged me on Twitter saying that they work at Shopify “in spite of Tobi Lütke, not because of him”. They spoke of wanting to “escape” the company. Many of them spoke about the ‘Tobi Tornado,’ referring to his “ability to throw teams into chaos and disorder”. 

This isn’t a scandalous piece. I’m not trying to highlight the bad bits of Shopify. I’m merely showing that every company will have fans and critics. When that’s understood by everyone involved, companies can be strategic about who they hire and individuals can be picky about where they work. That’s how companies build great teams and great products, and it’s how individuals maximise their talents.

I asked a developer advocate who’s been there for 8 years, and through many different versions of the company, about the ‘Tobi Tornado’ (emphasis mine).

“The ‘Tobi tornado’ does happen, but nobody involved in the process loves it. It's not like execs are stomping around looking for projects to disrupt. 

The missions and intent from product leaders (including Tobi) are generally pretty clear. Every team knows that they're going to need to give updates or show a demo at some point to a VP or an exec. If the intent and missions of the company weren't well understood by that team, they're going to try and build something that doesn't make sense, and they'll hear about it when they pitch the feature to leadership.

This expectation of quality and focus ends up permeating all feature releases. You know that nothing major is going to go out the door without a leadership stakeholder, and the quality bar is always going to be upheld — so you better make sure everything is tight, well reasoned, and will result in merchant value.

All the leaders I've talked about can be convinced of pretty much ANYTHING if you have the data and vision to support it. People hold loose opinions. There's no ego preventing people from changing their minds if they're presented with a better alternative. There are plenty of things that exist on Shopify today that leadership has historically said we'll "likely never" support. 

The chaos can be real though, Shopify moves very fast. For overachievers who attach their self-worth to their job performance, it can be stressful to stay ahead of the curve. If you want to keep delivering an overweighted impact at Shopify, you need to personally grow even faster than the company does.”

Read the parts in bold and it’s easy to see how an employee might be unhappy at Shopify. It’s a fast-moving environment with an incredibly high minimum-quality bar. You’re surrounded by pressure and expectation, conditions that many people prefer not to work under.

Another perspective is that an employee determined to build world-class products and discover how good they really are will thrive in this environment. They’ll love it, because of the pressure and expectations placed upon them.

Neither employee is right or wrong, they simply value different things and thrive under different conditions. The people that thrive in high-stakes environments will likely enjoy Shopify. People that don’t, probably won’t. They’d be better suited to a company with less pressure, and perhaps no meetings, no deadlines, and no full-time employees.

As an employee, figuring out which conditions you thrive under should be priority number one, because the quality of your work is directly related to it. As a company, make your values clear and seek to attract employees that identify with them.

Here’s the takeaway:

Alignment of company values and employee values creates an endless vein of motivation in the same way that misalignment creates an endless vein of sub-par work and unhappiness. You want to get it correct.

Attracting Talent

Until recently, nobody knew about Shopify. Most people would have told you that they were just another website company, somewhere in Canada, minus the TechCrunch articles and tech Twitter hype. And then all of a sudden people realised that they weren't a website company, they were an entrepreneurship company. Flying under the radar for so long (Shopify was founded in 2004) has various implications, but the most important has to do with the people. 

Shopify’s location has always been a competitive advantage. Working in Canada means that Shopify doesn't have to compete with Silicon Valley companies for product and engineering talent. In the valley, it's common practice for the best engineers to bounce around from company to company. The average tenure at some companies is under 2 years. Shopify couldn't be more different - the common complaint about Shopify is that all the good talent goes to work there, and then never leaves. 

There’s a virtuous feedback cycle at work: since Shopify can count on you staying for longer than your average tech company can, they can invest more into you when you start. Reciprocally, giving everyone more up-front investment, greater context and longer tenure, means that you can make more tactical choices in how you work. 

Companies grow by helping their people achieve personal and professional breakthroughs. As Tobi says, "You need to add good people but existing people need to get better as well." Shopify is a better company by helping its people have eureka moments in some meaningful way.

“We trust our people and we give them the space to make their own decisions, champion their own work, and challenge the status quo. We’re building an environment where employees can do their life’s work.” - Anna Lambert, Shopify’s Director of Talent Acquisition.

People appreciate that, and they stick around longer. That doesn’t sound like a big change, but it changes everything for the company. It means that it’s a much better idea to hire for future potential than for current skill, unlocking a whole new cohort of potentially game-changing employees. 

Here’s the takeaway:

By finding people that align with the company values and pouring everything into them, a powerful cycle is created. That cycle compounds over time and the company, employees and customers are better for it.

Identifying the Skills Needed

Two critical ingredients for Shopify employees are optimism and resilience.

Shopify’s merchants are entrepreneurs. They’re brave people tackling a difficult task - sometimes because they have to, but oftentimes because they want to prove something to themselves. More often than not, society tries to talk them out of doing the entrepreneurship thing and in most countries, company building is rarely encouraged. Optimists succeed at Shopify because the company is in the business of helping entrepreneurs succeed despite society telling them that they can't.

Resilient people succeed because Shopify is attempting to solve a problem that hasn’t been solved before. That’s difficult. It requires trial and error and the resiliency to keep going.

Tobi tells a wonderful story about the culinary team adapting to uncertainty during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“We hired some people to look after lunches for everyone—our culinary team. They suddenly had no one to feed in the office (after Shopify went fully remote). They ended up asking if they could have $5,000 to buy an old food truck and just drive around town with food packages. And what’s neat is that even though we no longer need a culinary team since we’re fully remote, that team has all gone on to amazing careers in completely different fields—oftentimes within Shopify—because those are the kind of people you can build world-class companies with. Every time we change something and make something kind of crazy, like turning Plan B into the new Plan A, some people are just going to be amazing in those times, and those are the people that we love betting on.” 

Every company faces their own challenges. It might be the uncertainty of trying to forge a new path, or it might be something completely different and unique to you. The real skill is identifying those challenges and recruiting people with the skills to handle them.

Here’s the takeaway:

Change is inevitable and your reaction to it determines whether you win or lose. Hire people that will thrive under the change you expect to encounter.

Key Takeaways

Shopify has clear core values. They’re merchant-obsessed and employee-centric, hell-bent on learning as much as they can, thinking long-term, and making good decisions under uncertainty.

These core principles continue to emerge from different people, sources and stories. It's not a marketing ploy; Shopify embodies and lives by these principles. That presents two lessons:

  1. For individuals: The prominence of these core beliefs should serve as a warning label: Shopify isn’t for everyone, but it’s intoxicating for the people that identify with them. Find a company that has beliefs you identify with and pour yourself into it. It’s where you’ll do your best work.

  2. For companies: Make your values known and recruit people that identify with them. Find them, trust them, and pour everything into them, and you’ll win more often than not. It’s amongst the most high-leverage activities you can do.